While the upper portion of the Danube River is hardly foreign to river cruisers, with many cruise companies anchoring itineraries in Budapest, heading down river from this Hungarian capital one starts to see the disparity between West and East.
The Lower Danube technically starts at the Iron Gates, with the section between Devin Gate (at the border of Austria and Slovakia) and Iron Gate considered the middle Danube. (The watery intersection for the Danube’s major tributaries, such as the Drava, the Tisza, and the Sava.) But for all intents and purposes, anything south of Budapest is off the beaten path for the traditional river cruiser – and is what I’m referring to when discussing itineraries on the lower Danube.
The Danube is full of locks, 70 of them to be exact, and you’ll transit 18 on the popular stretch between Passau and Budapest alone. While these locks are certainly interesting engineering feats, I love the freedom you feel sailing open and unadulterated waters. That’s exactly the sense that you’ll get on the lower Danube, where nature and even architecture feels decidedly untouched.
Sailing through only two locks feels uninhibiting, despite the name of the most popular: Iron Gates. In this gorge you’ll cruise through the European Alps and Carpathian Mountains along the watery border between Serbia and Romania. Ensconced by rocky curtains for 80 miles, it feels as though the earth has parted just wide enough for you to pass. It’s stunning.
But what really makes this final stretch leading to the Black Sea so memorable are the destinations ashore, including ports such as Osijek, Croatia; Belgrade, Serbia; Vindin and Belogradchik, Bulgaria; and Bucharest, Romania, to name a few. I think river cruising is the ideal way to experience locations where you might not book a weeklong land vacation, per se, but prove to be incredibly fascinating stops, with the river leading you to the doorstep of the nation’s most iconic locales.
While itineraries here aren’t as plentiful as those offered on the Upper Danube, you do have some options. CroisiEurope has several itineraries and has announced a new 11-day journey between Central Europe and the Balkans on the Danube and Sava river in 2018. It includes a lot of stops in Croatia, which is more uncommon among itineraries typically offered on the lower Danube.
Avalon Waterways features a sailing through the Balkans and one between Bucharest and the Black Sea while Viking River Cruises has an 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe Sailing and longer 22-day European Sojourn from Amsterdam to Bucharest.
On the other end of the spectrum, AmaWaterways offers a shorter 7-day itinerary that commences in Budapest but stops short of the Black Sea in Romania in addition to a two week itinerary that starts from Vilshofen (near Passau) Germany.
River Cruise Advisor’s Peak Season Charts
River Cruise Advisor’s peak season 2019 price comparisons should be viewed as general guidelines for comparing prices across the major companies operating on a particular river (or region) in Europe or for a particular itinerary.
The intent of the charts is to provide a baseline for matching a cruise company to your budget. I’ve calculated what I believe to be the “true per diem” for each cruise company, after factoring in, or out, the various items that are included, or not included, on a particular river cruise.
Pricing is anything but straightforward among the major river cruise companies, as many companies offer two-for-the-price-of-one river cruises, reduced or free airfare incentives, early-booking discounts and many more pricing tactics that make purchasing a river cruise vacation a complex and confounding exercise. Using a spreadsheet until we were bleery-eyed, my team and I have tried to decipher the various offers and inclusions to arrive at meaningful guidelines for comparisons.
The bottom line, the true per diem, is what you can expect to pay per person for each day of your cruise for a lead-in standard stateroom, or where applicable, a lead-in balcony stateroom.
Price, however, should not be the only consideration when selecting a company for your river cruise. There are a boatload of variables to be considered, not the least of which is what’s included in your cruise. If you’re someone who prefers everything included, an open bar, for example, and prepaid gratuities, you’ll want to look to companies that provide those as part of your cruise fare. For help in figuring out which cruise company includes what, see “Attributes Of The Top River Cruise Companies,” a chart that outlines inclusions.
As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. While I try to get things right, I do goof now and then, which is why I am extremely grateful to readers who bring errors to my attention so that I can correct them as quickly as possible.
Bon voyage, Ralph Grizzle
Danube (Lower) 2019 Pricing ComparisonsThe lower Danube technically starts at the Iron Gates, with the section between Devin Gate (at the border of Austria and Slovakia) and Iron Gate considered the middle Danube. (The watery intersection for the Danube’s major tributaries, such as the Drava, the Tisza, and the Sava.) But for all intents and purposes, anything south of Budapest is off the beaten path for the traditional river cruiser—and is what I’m referring to when discussing itineraries on the lower Danube.
While itineraries here aren’t as plentiful as those offered on the Upper Danube, you do have some options. Sailings typically range between seven and 14 days, with more than half a dozen companies offering Lower Danube river cruises.
Although the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and communism in this region collapsed shortly thereafter, Communism’s long shadow still looms darkly over Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia, with the latter countries having been terribly affected by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the bloody Croatian War of Independence that raged on until 1995. Locals are candid about their history, which is often filled with twists, turns, and regrets. Nearly three decades later, this part of Europe is raw, authentic and engaging.
The Lower Danube is far less touristic and commercialized than its Western counterpart (the Upper Danube), which offers all the retail therapy you’ll find at home. Instead, the Lower Danube is locally-focused. Restaurants, cafes and bars are family-run and, in many instances, have been operating there for generations. Tourists, while still present during the high-season months of summer, are less prevalent than on the more-popular Upper Danube. Some cities (Bucharest, Belgrade) are more modernized than others, with towns like Osijek and Vukovar, Croatia, still recovering from the War of Independence two decades ago.
If your first river cruise was on the Western Danube, your second voyage should take you to the Eastern Danube. The contrast provided between the two will help you to understand the issues that face countries like Romania and Bulgaria to this day, and the delicate, sometimes complicated balance between acknowledging a communist past while grappling with the uncertainty that surrounds the tenuous version of ‘democracy’ that grips some of these countries to this day. It’s a fascinating look at an often-overlooked part of Europe.
Current incentives when I compiled the chart in May of 2018: Avalon, $500 off per person; Emerald Cruises, free air for all Horizon Deck guests; $295 for Vista Deck and $495 for Riviera Deck; Scenic, fly free; Uniworld, 10 percent off when paid in full; and Viking, two cruise for the price of one and air is offered for $500 off per person.
|Ship||AmaCerto||Avalon Passion||Vivaldi||Emerald Dawn||Thomas Hardy||Scenic Crystal||Treasure||Beatrice||Embla|
|Sailing Date||May 26, 2019||June 25, 2019||June 19, 2019||August 3, 2019||June 3, 2019||May 22, 2019||June 25, 2019||June 3, 2019||June 3, 2019|
|Itinerary||Gems of SE Europe||Balkan Discovery||Balkan Peninsula, Danube Delta||Lower Danube Waltz||Budapest to Black Sea||Black Sea Explorer||Budapest to Black Sea||Highlights of Eastern Europe||Passage to Eastern Europe|
|Cabin Category||Category E||Category D,E||Main Deck Double bed||Stateroom E||Emerald lower||Jewel E||Category 1||Classic||Standard F|
|Room With A View?||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window|
|Per diem *||$514||$430||$383||$449||$347||$602||$635||$444||$780|
|Port Charges *||$22.75||$17||Included||Included||Included||Included||Included||$19||Included|
|Gratuities (on ship) *||$18||$13.44||$11.25||Included||$10.00||Included||Included||Included||$15.87|
|Gratuities (on shore) *||$2.50||$2.50||$2.50||included||$2.00||Included||Included||Included||$2.50|
|Optional Shore Excursions *||Included||$17||Included||$12.50||n/a||Included||Included||Included||$12.50|
|Current Incentive *||n/a||$500||$306||$905||n/a||$1,400||0||$399||$4,399|
|Value of Incentive *||n/a||$56||$38||$129||n/a||$175||$0||$44||$440|
|True Per Diem||$560||$437||$359||$346||$383||$427||$638||$419||$384|
|Per Diem/Square Foot *||$3.50||$2.54||$2.56||$2.13||$2.23||$2.67||$4.25||$2.62||$2.56|
|Balcony Upgrade *||$899||$814||$365||$650||$690||$1,000||$400||$900||$600|
|Balcony Per Diem||$689||$528||$404||$438||$433||$552||$674||$544||$444|
Pricing Charts Explanation & Clarification
* Nights – A 7-night river cruise spans 7 days, but one of those days is the disembarkation day. Unlike checking out of a hotel, you won’t linger until noon (or later) on disembarkation day. Some guests will depart before 6 a.m. for transfers to the airport and their flights home. Others may be able to stay as late as 9 a.m. Either way, you’re not getting a full day on your river cruise on that last day. For that reason, the “per diems” are calculated based on the number of “nights” on board. The result is a fairer assessment than calculating the cost per “day.”
* Per Diem – The rate divided by the number of nights on board, indicated per person but based on double occupancy. Solo travelers will, in most cases, pay single supplements. Solo travelers can learn more about single supplements at this link, Avoiding Single Supplement Fares
* Port Charges – Not all river cruise companies include port charges. What are port charges? Ports of call, where river cruise ships dock, set their own fees, and these fees are then passed on to the river cruise passengers. See our post on port charges, Port Charges: Which River Cruise Companies Include Them?
* Gratuities (on ship) – Some companies include gratuities for crew, others leave it to their guests to take care of gratuities. If your cruise is one of the latter, you may want to have some euro notes handy for stuffing into envelopes (or into the hands of your favorite crew members) on the last night of the cruise. Guidelines of how much to tip also vary by river cruise line. See Prepaid Gratuities: Which River Cruise Companies Include Them?
* Gratuities (on shore) – Just as with crew gratuities, some companies take care of on-shore gratuities for guides and drivers; other companies leave it to their guests. If you’re traveling with a company that operates by the latter policy, be sure to carry euro coins with you for tipping guides and drivers.
* Beverages – Nearly all river cruise companies offer complimentary soft drinks, speciality coffees, beer and wine during lunch and dinner. In between mealtimes, though, you’ll pay for most beverages when traveling with Avalon, Emerald, Riviera and Viking. Beverages are included on CroisiEurope, Crystal, Scenic, Tauck and Uniworld. AmaWaterways introduced a “Sip & Sail” Happy Hour in 2018, which includes complimentary cocktails before dinner. For that reason, I’ve indicated AmaWaterways as “Beverages Included,” though you should be aware that you could leave the ship with a balance on your bar tab if you consume beverages outside of Happy Hour or breakfast (sparkling wine is included), lunch or dinner. Riviera does not include wine and beer, even during lunch and dinner. For those who don’t imbibe – and who don’t wish to pay for an inclusion they won’t make use of – Riviera’s a la carte pricing structure makes a lot of sense. For those who want to add a touch of the all-inclusive to their Riviera experience, the company offers drink packages for its 2018 river cruises that start at roughly $129 per person for an average weeklong voyage (the package will be $159 in 2019). This adds draft and non-alcoholic beer, red and white house wine, bottled water, soft drinks and juices on a complimentary basis to lunches and dinners served onboard. Spirits, or drinks purchased outside mealtimes, come at an additional cost. Viking River Cruises has a similar package. While Viking includes beer and wine with lunch and dinner, the company also offers a Silver Spirit Beverage Package. At €300 per cabin, double occupancy, the cost of Viking’s all-inclusive beverage package may seem steep at first glance, but it can be quite a value when you consider the quality of the beverages offered. Are you a Scotch drinker? Then you may know of Highland Park Ragnvald, which goes for more than $500 a bottle on the internet sites I researched. Yet on Viking, you can enjoy as many glasses as you like of the single malt Scotch whiskey as part of your Silver Spirit Beverage Package. Without the package, a 4 cl shot of Ragnvald goes for €22. Now you know which one to order when you belly up to the bar on Viking.
* Laundry – All-inclusive river cruise companies may provide free laundry service during your cruise. Some companies also provide access to washers and dryers free of charge and even include the soap. Most river cruise companies offer laundry and pressing services for a fee if it’s not part of an all-inclusive package. Either way, you’ll likely need to do some laundry while traveling, unless you pack like I do. See What I Pack When I river Cruise, What About You? If you don’t pack like me, you’ll need laundry services. See Laundry Services: Which Cruise Lines Include Them?
* Optional Shore Excursions – All river cruise companies include complimentary excursions in most, if not all, ports of call. However, some companies offer optional shore excursions for a fee. Avalon, Crystal, Emerald, Riviera and Viking are among the companies that offer optional shore excursions. On my April 2017 Rhine cruise on Viking, for example, complimentary excursions were offered at each stop along the way. Viking also offered about a dozen optional tours, ranging in price from €49 per person to €189, the latter being a full-day excursion called Taste the Best of Alsace. Viking Hlin’s program director, Candi Finkelstein, told me that this was the number one rated tour on the Rhine Getaway itinerary, so sometimes paying for something you would not otherwise experience is not a bad thing. On Crystal’s Danube Dreams & Discoveries, more than two dozen shore excursions are offered, and most of those are complimentary. Crystal’s optional shore excursions on that itinerary range from a complimentary Culinary Walking Tour in Bratislava to Michelin-star dining experiences for $249 per person. On Emerald Cruises’ Danube Delights itinerary, you can pay extra for its DiscoverMORE excursions for such exclusive events as Tastes of Vienna and a Viennese Concert.
* Current Incentive (per person) – Riviera does not offer booking incentives, CroisiEurope rarely does. The rest offer a range of incentives, ranging from early-booking savings to two-for-ones and reduced or free air. The incentives are always changing so be sure to check with your travel seller or the cruise company about current offers.
* Value of Incentive (per day/pp) – I’ve divided the amount of the incentive by the number of nights to arrive at a per-diem value. Calculating the value of the incentives was a bit challenging, especially when it comes to air. One challenge: Free air isn’t really free air. While Scenic offers free air, for example, the company caps the fare at $1,400 for its lead-in cabins. Emerald Cruises offers free air for all Horizon Deck guests (also capped at $1,400); guests on Vista Deck pay $295 and those on Riviera Deck pay $495. Viking claims its free air is a $1,699 value. When searching peak season air from my home in Asheville, North Carolina to key river cruise destinations, I found that economy air was nearly always above $1,600 per person
* Per Diem/Square Foot – Why provide a square-footage per-diem? Why not? The idea is to provide a guideline of how much space you’re getting for the rate you pay for your river cruise. Though I caution that you should not plan to spend heaps of time in your room. There’s too much to see and do outside of those four walls.
* Balcony Upgrade – Nearly all of the entry-level staterooms feature fixed windows. The exception is Crystal, where even entry-level staterooms on its new vessels feature “Panoramic Balcony-Windows” that raise and lower, and basically function like a balcony (except on Mozart, which does have some fixed windows). CroisiEurope does not offer balconies on the majority of its vessels, but it too has windows that open, and though not as elaborate as those on Crystal, CroisiEurope’s windows provide fresh air and river views. With other cruise companies, you may want to upgrade to a balcony stateroom. I’ve provided price differentials for upgrades to entry-level balcony staterooms. Note that some of the entry-level balcony staterooms may be smaller than entry-level fixed window staterooms.
The Ultimate River Cruising Handbook
Featuring 2019 pricing charts for all European rivers.
In Europe alone there are more than two dozen navigable rivers and canals. Add the confluence of companies offering seemingly similar experiences and you might just end up feeling as though you’re going upriver without a paddle.
I’m here to help you navigate the ever-changing currents that define river cruising today. Having added more than 50 river cruises to my proverbial travel bucket, I’ve garnered a lot of insights that can help you understand the many options available to you.
Spanning 274 pages, The Ultimate River Cruising Handbook “manages to combine personal experience, with the history of river cruising, and the history of the multiple cruise lines extant today, plus discussions about the destinations offered by the most of the river cruise and barge cruise lines today,” writes Susan Kime, a writer for the online publication, JustLuxe.
The book includes 2019 pricing charts for all rivers and all major river cruise companies. Get your copy now.